For several years now, the fight against biotech crop use in food products has been quite intense. Every time the agricultural community and food industries have successfully fought to protect the use of these important cropping tools, some new special interest group questions their safety in a different public forum. Lately, efforts to “out” biotech crops have largely centered on getting cities, counties and states to pass laws requiring all foods made with biotech ingredients to state so on their labels. Many of these in places such as California and Washington State have been soundly defeated in ballot initiatives. However, Vermont has recently passed such a law.
Not surprisingly, biotech crop producers and the food industry (including the Grocery Manufacturers Association) oppose these efforts, and have spent many millions of dollars fighting them. According to most labeling law opponents, it’s a matter of principle to oppose these laws.
“Mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts,” said Charla Lord, a spokesperson for The Monsanto Co. “GMO crops undergo more testing and oversight than any other agricultural products and the safety of biotech crops is well established.”
In truth, I agree with this view. Putting anything on a product label that might imply danger to consumers could be very bad indeed. However, does a label ultimately make any difference?
To answer this question, consider the case of Cheerios. Late last year, cereal maker General Mills announced it was reformulating its popular brand to eliminate biotech crop ingredients after being pressured to do so by the Green America activist group. Boxes carrying the “GMO Free” label went on sale in early 2014.
And the result? Well, according to General Mills CEO Ken Powell, GMO Free Cheerios sales failed to “move the needle” and might have even falling slightly. “It’s what I expected,” said Powell at a late March press briefing. He added that “most customers don’t even care about the GMO issue.”
I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t the correct view. Special interest groups may scream the loudest, which is why they are being heard, but consumers voting with their hard-earned dollars will ultimately carry the day when it comes to biotech crop use.